Ebook Formatting Services: Update

QuinnDecor1As some of you are aware, I removed my ebook services page. There were several reasons I did so, but the major one was that I really hate telling people “no” and I had too much going on in order to say “yes” to everyone who asked.

But the queries keep pouring in.

Here it is the 4th of July and the year is half over, and there are a lot of writers out there gearing up to get their books published in time for the next holiday season.

So this is to let you all know that I’ll be taking on new clients starting in August. Actually, the second half of August since the first part is already booked. I’ll activate my services/pricing page then.

Before you contact me, though, let me explain a little bit about myself and how I work.

  • It’s just me. No employees, no sub-contractors. If I do a job for you, it’s me doing everything.
  • I do custom work. I guess what you’d call me is a “boutique producer.” Every project is unique and I work very closely with writers to make their books stand out. I love a challenge.
  • I care passionately about books in all their forms and when I put my credit for interior design in the book, it’s because I’m proud of it.
  • I do my best to keep my prices as low as possible because 1) Many indie writers are on very tight budgets and I don’t want high prices preventing indies from producing a professional product; 2) As a reader, I don’t want high prices preventing indies from producing a professional product. Some books DO cost more to produce, but I’ll do my best to find creative ways to keep costs down.
  • There are many things I can do: digital formatting, print-on-demand formatting; text restoration from printed material; cover modifications; line editing; proofreading; custom graphics.
  • There are many things I cannot do: promotion; marketing; tell you how to distribute your work (I can tell you where, but YOU have to decide on the strategy).
  • Somebody is going to proofread your book. You can hire me to do it, hire another proofreader, or do it yourself. But if you want me to produce your book, you must make arrangements because if I’m going to work so hard to make it LOOK good, then you have to do your part to make the text as clean as possible.
  • The only time I do Word formats for ebooks is when the writer is using Smashwords and is also uploading an EPUB to them. I don’t do Word formats for any other market and I don’t do them as stand-alones.

QuinnDecor2In the meantime, if you have a project that you need done now and can’t wait until late August, I recommend Paul Salvette at bbebooksthailand.com or Guido Henkel. Either of them will take good care of you.

Also in the meantime, I’m getting a lot of queries about cover work. I can do cover modifications, including putting a spine and back cover on print on demand books, but I don’t do original artwork. I’ve been sending many people to Derek Murphy, but my understanding is that he is very popular and, hence, very busy. So if you have a favorite cover designer you can recommend for skill and professionalism, put a link in the comments and thank you in advance for helping out my readers.

Thanks all for your queries. I apologize to those I’ve had to turn away. I’ll be back up and available soon.

 

 

Managing File Sizes for Ebooks

The majority of fiction writer/publishers will not run into overall file size problems. Text doesn’t create monster files. Using graphics or illustrations can add significantly to the overall file size, but I’ve yet to create an ebook that exceeds –or even comes close to–Amazon’s 50MB limit (which may be changing due to the introduction of the new Fire HD tablets). Even with illustrations and graphics, I do my best to keep the overall file size under 5MB because of Amazon’s delivery fees ($.15 per MB). Those fees are charged against the publisher and can eat up royalties quickly.

As I said, most fiction writer/publishers will not run into problems with overall file size.

Where fiction writer/publishers do run into problems are with the size of individual chapter files within the ebook. When you use <h1> or <h2> tags in html, or the Heading 1 or Heading 2 style in a word processor, you are alerting the conversion programs (such as Calibre or KindleGen) that this is a new chapter and should be split into a new file.* If you don’t use the headings or tags, the conversion programs look for certain words–Chapter, Part, Section, etc.–to determine where the file should be split. What is NOT reliable at all is using page breaks (in a word processor) or the “page-break-before” command in html/CSS. (I have absolutely no idea why those work sometimes, but sometimes they don’t–my best guess is the whims or moods of the Digital God.)

I always split html (text) files into chapters or parts, which manages the overall ebook very nicely. Even though this example is from a novel (Prophet of Paradise by J. Harris Anderson) that is almost 200,000 words long, notice the size of the individual chapters:

File Size

What happens if you don’t use tags or headings and your chapters have titles the conversion programs don’t recognize? What happens if you don’t have chapters at all and your ebook is deliberately one long tract? If it runs up against the 300KB file size limit (approximately 45,000 words), several things could happen:

  • Your file fails to convert
  • The conversion program inserts page breaks whether they are appropriate or not
  • The file converts, but some devices tell the user the ebook can’t be loaded

If your files are less than 300KB, but still largish (over 150KB) your readers could experience serious screen lag as they page through your story. This is an important consideration for genre fiction writers since the chances are your readers are Super-Readers and might have hundreds or even thousands of ebooks loaded on their devices. They will not be happy if your file sizes and their addiction cause several seconds of lag every time they “turn” the page.

What to do?

  • If you are using a word processor to style your ebooks, use the Heading 1 and Heading 2 styles for your chapters, parts and sections. (Do NOT depend on the conversion programs to recognize your inserted page breaks!)
  • If you are styling in html, use the <h1> and <h2> tags.
  • If your project does not have natural breaks such as chapters or parts (it’s long short story or novella) consider a minor restructure. Use the page count as your guide and try to find natural breaks around the 15,000 word mark–a scene break or time or pov shift or even an illustration that sits on its own “page”.

* If you are using Calibre to convert your ebooks, you can check the file splits in Calibre’s EPUB editor. You’ll see the list of individual text/html files and can open each one on the viewer/edit screen. If you are experiencing inappropriate page breaks, you can manage the fixes in the editor.

 

 

Fun With Ebook Formatting: Make a Little List

Did you know that most ereaders handle lists quite nicely? Here are some screenshots from a Kindle Paperwhite of one of my projects:

List1

List2Tidy, eh? The best thing is, lists are very easy to do with css and html.

List3There are two types of lists: Ordered and Unordered. Ordered lists use numbers or letters to mark list items; Unordered lists use symbols such as bullets. The html tags: <ol> for ordered lists; <ul> for unordered lists; <li> for list entries.

List5For some reason ebooks don’t care for type declarations in the html. The EPUB validator issues klaxon call warnings about that. I have found best practice is to declare the styles in the css stylesheet then assign classes.

Styling in css:

List6You can have fun with lists, too. Lists can be nested–perfect for complex Tables of Contents. And take a look at the screenshot where it says Add a Fancy Symbol. The fast and simple way is to make an unordered list with a style declaration of “none” and then insert a named entity (in this case, the right arrow).

List4You can tart up your lists with circles, squares, Roman numerals, and even images. To learn more, the w3schools site has all the information you need. For list type properties, go here. Just keep in mind that ebooks don’t like the “type” declaration, so use either “class” or “style.”

Have fun!

 

Soft Hyphens for Kindle Books

I don’t care for automatic hyphenation in ebooks. The devices are pretty dumb and because they use an algorithm instead of an English major’s sensibilities, we get words like “mi- nute” instead of “min-ute” or “alt-hough” instead of “al-though.” While it is possible to turn on hyphenation for Kindle books, I’d rather not.

But. If a word has too many characters to fit on one line, this is what you get:

shy1Just like an oversized image, characters disappear off the screen. Because there are so many Kindle devices and apps, you have no idea what settings or screen size your reader might be using. Judicious use of soft hyphenation is an easy fix to an annoying problem.

Here is the same text, hyphenated, at various settings on the Kindle Previewer:

shy3shy4shy5What I did was use the named entity for a soft hyphen — &shy;

shy6The above example is a bit of overkill, but it was easy, so I did it. This way, no matter what preferences or screen size the user has, the text will not disappear off the screen.

If you’re building a non-fiction ebook, especially one with many long terms (technical or medical) inserting soft hyphens can prevent those unsightly gaps when a long word/term is jumped to the next page.

Have fun!

 

Creating a Professional Look for Ebooks

Can you spot an ebook produced by an amateur? I’m not talking about the writing–I’m talking about the interior production. Take a look at these side by side screenshots:

AmPro2 What about these?

AmPro1Take a good look and see if you can spot what I see.

Screenshot 1, upper left, self-published, amateur. I’m fairly certain the publisher converted a Word format. The story sounded interesting so I downloaded a sample. It looks like a manuscript and I knew it would trigger my Inner Editor and seriously affect my reading enjoyment, so I passed on buying the book.

Screenshot 2, upper right, trad-published, professional. The overall ebook is visually interesting, designed with the reader in mind. Purchased, read and enjoyed.

Screenshot 3, lower left, self-published, professional. One of my productions.

Screenshot 4, lower right, trad-published, amateur. Ugly and distracting. Purchased without sampling because this is one of my favorite authors, but I will definitely sample any other offerings from this publisher and if the next is as poorly done as this one, I’ll pass.

It drives me a little crazy when publishers put so much effort into ebook covers and give so little thought to the interior. I have never once heard a reader say, “Oh, I just loved the cover on Wendy Writer’s ebook, I think I will buy the next one.” Granted I’ve never heard one say, “Oh the formatting was so lovely, I think I’ll buy the next.” I have heard people say, “The sample was such a mess, I didn’t buy the book.” and “I wanted to like the book, but there were so many errors…” Worst of all, they say nothing, just refuse to buy another book by that particular publisher.

AmPro3Readers judge. When the ebook looks amateurish, they judge before they even start to read. They’ll be more aware of and less forgiving of typos. If the ebook makes any visual impression at all, it will probably be a bad one.

On the flip side, professionalism establishes trust. It sends a message to the reader: “You’re in good hands. Sit back, relax and enjoy.” Readers might not consciously recognize how much thought and effort you put into your formatting, but sub-consciously they will notice and it will have a favorable effect on their reading experience.

So how do you cross the line between amateur and pro? If you’re thinking about hiring someone, look at samples. (There are a lot of amateurs out there charging a lot of money for crappy formats.) If you are doing it yourself, start with

THE BASICS

  • Squeaky clean text.
  • Printer’s punctuation.
  • Proper paragraph spacing.
  • Proper paragraph indents.
  • Proofreading.

THE LAYOUT

  • Control your Front Matter (If potential readers have to page through 20 pages of front matter in the sample, you’ll probably lose the sale)
  • Always include a Table of Contents–and make it useful. If, by chance, your book’s ToC is a lengthy list of Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., come up with a way to shorten it or move it to the back.
  • Make your back matter work for you. Include an author bio, and links to other works and your blog/website.
  • Consider text ornaments or other visuals, especially if your story is long or the text is dense. This gives readers some eye relief.

THE CONVERSION

  • One Size Does NOT Fit All. A Kindle format is different than an EPUB format.
  • Use the right tools. (I know this will cause howls of outrage, but it’s the truth: To create a professional quality ebook using Word, you need some mad-monkey Word-fu skills. If you have those skills, then you’ll have no problem learning html, so why don’t you?)

snoringIf your ebook is already published and you know it’s not up to professional standards, do not be afraid to do it over. That’s the beauty of ebooks–fluidity. Amazon makes it easy to update files. Other distributors aren’t so user-friendly, but updates are still possible. Taking your already published ebook from amateur to professional won’t recover past lost sales, but it will help future sales. It will definitely help sales for your other works.

 

Why You Shouldn’t Format Your Word Docs

Dungeon babyThere’s a reason my ebooks are superior–two reasons, actually–and neither has anything to do with my technical prowess (I don’t have much) or talent (anyone can do what I’m about to tell you).

Reason Number One: Pre-production, I clean the text. As soon as a document comes up in the queue, I open it and start stripping it of everything that can mess up an ebook: extraneous paragraph returns, extra spaces, and tabs. I tidy up punctuation, tag areas that require special coding, neaten italics and check for special characters that won’t translate. As a writer and editor myself, I know most of the writer tricks and have a rather lengthy list of things to look for. By the time I’m ready to start coding, the text is so clean it squeaks.

Reason Number Two: Post-production, the ebook is proofread. I don’t care who proofreads the ebook. I can do it, the writer can do it, the writer can hire the job out to someone else. I give the writer a proof copy of the ebook and a mark-up document and encourage them to be as picky as they can stand. Even if they hire me to proofread, they still get the proof copy to load on a device or their computer so they can check the formatting and layout. The point is to find mistakes before the readers do. The point is to make sure the ebook works properly.

I am shocked and appalled that every single person who produces ebooks doesn’t do the exact same thing. They don’t and I know they don’t because I read ebooks that are filled with the types of errors and hiccups that text cleaning and proofreading would have rooted out.

The trad pubs are actually worse offenders than are indies, especially when it comes to back list. I can see it with my own eyes, but it’s amusing to see a publisher admit it publicly on The Passive Voice blog:

J.A. Our experience with Kindle is that as soon as a customer complains they take down the file and send the publisher a takedown notice. It’s actually a real pain in the neck. It could be one person complained and something very minor. We get them occasionally and we fix them right away. They give the reader a credit for the download. I should add that when files are converted they generally aren’t checked page for page like a print book might normally be. We rely on the conversion house to do a good job. If we keep catching errors or getting complaints we would change vendors. We pay pretty good money for these conversions. Our books are almost all straight text so conversions aren’t generally a major issue, but books with columns or charts, or unusual layouts do cause problems and need to be checked carefully. –Steven Zacharius, CEO, Kensington Books

Emphasis mine.

Having personally cleaned up well over a million words of scanned and OCR’d text, that statement offends the shit out of me. Writers deserve better. Readers deserve better.

So what’s that got to do with formatting Word docs? Everything.

If you’re a Do-It-Yourselfer, and are formatting your own ebooks, you cannot skip these steps. (On a sidenote, my biggest gripe with Smashwords is how difficult they make it to proofread an ebook. An upload has to go through the whole publishing process before you can look at it live on a device. Depending on how fast you are at proofreading, the ebook can be live–all goofs intact–for weeks before you can fix them and go through the process again.) My suggestion for the indie formatting Word docs for Smashwords (or any other distributor who accepts Word docs) is to convert them first with a program like Calibre and proofread the results. Find and fix problems before uploading the Word doc to Smashwords.

If you’re hiring a formatter, find out first if they clean up your file pre-production. Many do not. If that’s the case, you need to do the cleaning. Some pros charge by the hour to clean up the Word doc. The more elaborately you’ve formatted your document, the longer it will take to clean it up and the more expensive it will be. (Not to mention wasting your own time on needless work.) My suggestion, if you have special requirements, arrange for a system of tags to let the formatter know what you want. I ask writers to put instructions inside square brackets, i.e. [HEADLINE, PUT IN SMALL CAPS, CENTERED, EXTRA SPACE ABOVE AND BELOW].

Find out, too, the professional’s policy on proofreading. Do you get a proof copy? Does the formatter charge extra to input changes and corrections? (I charge for actual proofreading, but I don’t charge to input changes and corrections from somebody else’s proofread.) If you are not allowed to make post-production changes to your ebook, find another service. Trust me, no matter how well edited, cleaned and formatted the file is going in, you will find something to fix while proofreading. (Gremlins!)

So, for you writers working in Word, one final suggestion: Post the following where you can see it while you work and keep repeating it until it sinks in:

What I see on the computer screen is NOT how how my text will look, or act, in an ebook.

Word to Calibre to MOBI: Part 3: File Conversion

You went through Part 1 and styled your Word file properly. In Part 2 you learned how to turn it into a functional html file. Now it is time to convert your file.

A caveat before we begin. I use Calibre, but I don’t really use it. It has a pleasant display and it’s a good way to double-check EPUB files I create. I don’t use it to convert my files. What I am about to show you is the result of some serious screwing around with the program. It’s a hack and it may not be the very best one. What it does is work. So, if any of you are more familiar with how Calibre works and you have a better way, feel free to share.

STEP 1: Open your html file in Calibre. It will convert into a “zip” file.

CAL16STEP 2: Convert the ebook into an EPUB file. (Yes, EPUB, not MOBI. You will never again use Calibre to convert MOBI files for commercial purposes. It’s still just fine for personal use.)

CAL17STEP 3: Once your book is converted and you are back at the main page, right click on the book title and a drop down menu will appear. There will be an entry that says “Edit Book.” Click that.

CAL18STEP 4: Holy Moley time again. It’s an EPUB editor.

CAL19STEP 5: In the left hand sidebar, under “Text” delete the file that says “titlepage.xhtml”

STEP 6: Under “Styles” open the file that says “page_styles.css”. It will contain some code that says:

{
margin-bottom: 5pt;
margin-top: 5pt
}

Delete that and Copy/Paste in its place this bit of code:

{margin: 0; padding: 0; border: 0; font-size: 100%; vertical-align: baseline;}
body {text-align: justify; line-height: 120%;}

STEP 7: Under “Images” will be your cover image. Open it. Now resize it. (make sure the Keep Aspect Ratio box is checked) Change the width to 800px. (The cover height should increase proportionately.)

STEP 8: Under “Miscellaneous” will be a file called “content.opf.” Open it. Scroll down to the bottom and you will see two entries: <guide> and </guide>. If you built your html file the same way as in this tutorial and deleted your titlepage.xhtml, there will be nothing in the guide.

CAL20Using Copy/Paste, insert this code between the two entries

<reference href=”FILE NAME” type=”toc” title=”Table of Contents” />
<reference href=”FILE NAME” type=”text” title=”Beginning” />

STEP 9: Figure out which of the files under “Text” is your table of contents. Copy the file name and paste it in the reference line so it replaces FILE NAME. (use Ctrl C to copy and Ctrl V to paste)

Do the same thing for whichever file (your title page or Chapter One or your preference for the beginning of your ebook) in the “Beginning” reference line.

Mine looks like this:

CAL21STEP 10: Save and close the EPUB editor.

STEP 11: Open the Kindle Previewer. Click on “Open Book” and select the EPUB file you just modified. If you did this right, you will get this box:

CAL22Now you have a MOBI file that will upload successfully at Amazon–and it will work. No squishy lines, no messed up formatting, and the user’s navigation guides will work.

I’m sure there are plenty of things you can do to modify the file in the EPUB editor. (I didn’t, for instance, even touch on the toc.ncx) This is a pretty rough hack I’ve come up with, and it can probably stand some streamlining. There is plenty of room for fine tuning. What I hope you see is that Word can be used for styling, but its html leaves far too much room for error in ebooks. With a little knowledge of html, you can write in Word, but then you do your styling in the text editor. When you’re comfortable with html, you can make complete ebooks and not have to use Calibre at all. (And you’ll be ready for Paul Salvette’s guide to ebook development, it’s featured in the sidebar.)

Again, you probably have plenty of questions. So send them to me at jayewmanus at gmail dot com and I’ll put together a FAQ post to answer them.